Fire Officials Seek Ban on Toy-Looking Lighters

February 13, 2008

The cartoonish plastic frog with bulging eyes could be a children’s toy — but for the torch-like flame that bursts from the novelty lighter’s head.

“They look like something you would get in a McDonald’s Happy Meal,” said John Dean, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, who often shows off the device. “They’re cute, they’re little” — but they can be deadly.

Dean’s group is backing an effort to ban novelty lighters across the country, and a handful of states are considering it. In California, Washington and Arkansas, local ordinances have been passed to keep the lighters off store shelves.

Novelty lighters can look like anything from tiny skateboards and cell phones to farm animals and butterflies. Some light up or make noises, including the tiny green frog that elicits a “ribbit” when its flame is ignited.

“They look like toys so kids play with them, and that’s caused a number of injuries and … deaths,” said Iowa state Sen. Keith Kreiman, who called the devices “an attractive nuisance.” The Iowa Legislature considered a measure last year seeking a study of the lighters, and the matter will likely come up again this session, Kreiman said.

The European Union has moved to ban novelty lighters, which are generally manufactured in China. Fire officials worry that manufacturers will try to unload the lighters in the U.S.

“What I think is happening now is we’re really getting dumped on, we’re seeing more,” said Judith Okulitch with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Okulitch’s agency was among the first to raise concern about the novelty lighters.

Distributors of the devices defend them, arguing they’re marketed for adults and that it’s up to parents to watch their kids.

“Kitchen knives and a lot of the other dangerous items out there that could harm children do not have the safety features that our lighters do,” said John Gibson, owner of San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based John Gibson Enterprises, Inc., which distributes novelty lighters.

Gibson said his lighters are all tested for child safety, and he said in many cases they are safer than regular lighters.

Gibson chalked up complaints about novelty lighters to “overzealous fire marshals around the country.”

Still, a lighter shaped like a tiny motorcycle was blamed for the death of two children last year in Arkansas. And an Oregon woman was burned when her young child ignited bedding with a lighter that featured a Santa face perched atop a Christmas tree, according to Okulitch’s office.

In January, Laura Fowler, of Gladwin, Mich., wanted to give her 4-year-old daughter a treat for cleaning her room. She accidentally bought her a novelty lighter, thinking it was a toy Dalmatian dog.

The girl was playing with the dog when Fowler saw a flash and realized it was a lighter. The girl wasn’t injured, but Fowler said it scared them both.

“Now when she sees it, she says ‘Owie mom, owie,”‘ Fowler said.

Dean and other fire officials praised an announcement this week by the Lighter Association, a national trade group, which said its members now support laws to ban the lighters.

“We see no justification for a novelty lighter,” said David H. Baker, the organization’s general counsel. However, he said his members would like to review some of the proposed measures to make sure they won’t affect other kinds of lighters marketed to adults.

“If the laws are different from state to state that’s probably not a good thing, it ultimately may be something where it may be better to have a federal standard, but we’ll see what happens,” Baker said.

Dean, who also serves as Maine’s state fire marshal, suggested that fire officials show the novelty lighters to lawmakers and regulators, then they can really see what happens with the devices.

“Every time I give these to a group of adults somebody gets burned, because it’s not always obvious where the flame is going to come out or how they work,” he said, adding that at a recent news conference one legislator burned some hair off of another’s hand. “The point is, if adults can’t figure it out, children sure can’t.”

On the Net:

National Association of State Fire Marshals:

Lighter Association:

Oregon State Fire Marshal:

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:

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